Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Thursday urged Republicans attending the party's winter meeting to play offense against Democrats in two key areas Democrats traditionally see as winning issues for their party: poverty and women's reproductive rights.
“The president wants to talk about income inequality. I think we should have the debate. I’ve heard other Republicans say, 'Don’t go there.' No, let’s do go there,” Huckabee told Republican National Committee members gathered for the three-day forum at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. “We should be the party that unapologetically says that there are way too many people who are struggling and who are poor.”
On outreach to female voters, Huckabee called on the Republican activists to push back on the Democratic narrative that Republican policies amount to a “war on women,” a talking point that Democrats found to be immensely successful in the last election.
Democrats, Huckabee said, see women as “helpless and hopeless creatures whose only goal in life is to have a government provide for them birth control medication" because they "cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."
His remarks quickly provoked a round of criticism on social media and even received a response from President Barack Obama’s spokesman.
“It’s time for Republicans to no longer accept listening to Democrats talk about a war on women," Huckabee said in a section of his speech worth quoting at length. "Because the fact is, the Republicans don’t have a war on women. They have a war for women. For them to be empowered; to be something other than victims of their gender.
"Women I know are outraged that Democrats think that women are nothing more than helpless and hopeless creatures whose only goal in life is to have a government provide for them birth control medication," he continued. "Women I know are smart, educated, intelligent, capable of doing anything anyone else can do. Our party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That’s not a war on them, it’s a war for them.
"And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," he said. "Let’s take that discussion all across America because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be. And women across America have to stand up and say, 'Enough of that nonsense.'”
The audience at the RNC greeted his comments with cheers. The accusation that the Republican Party is anti-woman is one that deeply offends Republican sensibilities and one the party's leaders have taken extensive measures to try to counter since the 2012 election. Yet Huckabee's remarks seemed destined to provoke another round of Democratic criticism of the GOP on that very issue, rather than sideline a conversation in which Republicans have had trouble gaining the upper hand. "It sounds offensive to me and to women," said White House press secretary Jay Carney when asked about Huckabee's remarks at his daily briefing.
The chair of the Democratic National Committee weighed in by sending out Huckabee's remarks to reporters to highlight what Democrats saw as a confirmation of their argument rather than a rebuke of it. "Mike Huckabee has no idea what he’s talking about. If this is the GOP rebrand a year later, then all they’ve gotten is a year older," said DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Huckabee’s speech came at a time when he is quietly considering another presidential run, and a prime speaking slot to RNC delegates offered him a platform to re-introduce himself to the party.
Five years ago, Huckabee launched a bid for the Republican presidential nomination and campaigned as an anti-establishment candidate who was happy to spar with the Republican Party if necessary. Huckabee told Newsweek at the time that many “establishment Republicans” view him with derision.
“I am not a Republican clone,” he said in September 2007. “I’m not right out of the laboratory of the RNC. It’s probably the reason I am not the favorite of a lot of establishment Republicans.”
On Thursday, Huckabee said he couldn’t remember having disagreements with the official party in 2008. (The theme was a regular part of his stump speech on the campaign trail.)
“I don’t remember tangling with the RNC,” Huckabee told Yahoo News when asked about his comments that he would not be a Republican “clone.” “I don’t remember that. Gosh, I’ve said a lot of things, all of which I’m sure I believed.”
Whether those differences were real or merely rhetorical, Huckabee on Thursday found himself in the belly of the very organization he distanced himself from in his last campaign.
This time, he preached a message of party unity.
“Please understand that I have differences with other Republicans. I don’t see everything eye to eye with probably everyone in this room. Some of you probably don’t see eye to eye on everything with me, I get that. We’re part of the same family," he said, urging them to stop calling other Republicans who occasionally stray from party orthodoxy as “RINOs,” an acronym for “Republican In Name Only.”
“Whatever differences we have, compared to the differences we have with the other party, are small,” he said.